LANSING – Efforts to reform Michigan’s decades-old term limits law may produce strange political bedfellows.
Voters Not Politicians, the citizen group behind last year’s successful ballot measure to end political gerrymandering, may team with GOP leaders whose party has benefited from some of the most gerrymandered districts in the nation on a 2020 ballot initiative to curb legislative term limits.
Also in the discussions: the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, whose executives led a group that paid consultants to draw districts to favor Republicans.
Voters Not Politicians leaders said they’ve met with Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey and House Speaker Lee Chatfield, among other lawmakers, to discuss “good government reforms.” VNP spokeswoman Elizabeth Battiste told Bridge, “we’re just starting to have conversations about what that might look like.”
The group is also exploring reforms to end the "revolving door" that allows lawmakers to immediately become lobbyists after leaving office, extend the state's public records request law to include lawmakers and the governor and other measures "all aimed at restoring Michigan voters’ faith in our state and democracy," said Nancy Wang, executive director of VNP.
"We have spoken with many groups, including some lawmakers, who could move these reforms forward, and we will consider taking them to the ballot should that be necessary," Wang said in a statement.
Chamber CEO Rich Studley confirmed his group was also part of a recent brainstorming meeting that included several interested groups and individuals, but declined to name the other participants.
“There was a very preliminary, very general discussion about what if anything might be possible regarding term limits — not repeal, but some type of a revision or reform," he said.
Short of eliminating term limits, potential reforms debated in the past include extending the length of terms or allowing lawmakers to serve all 14 years in a single chamber, which could give them more time to build relationships and develop expertise on policy committees. The political newsletter MIRS first wrote about on the meetings, and reported a possible plan may allow lawmakers to serve up to 20 combined years.
Michigan is one of 15 states with legislative term limits, which were a popular reform in the early 1990s. In Michigan, lawmakers are limited to three two-year terms in the House and two four-year terms in the Senate, 14 years total.
“Having the most severe term limits in the country, especially in the House, can make it really tough for newly elected lawmakers to get to know their colleagues, understand the process, then come up to speed on an issue and identify a solution,” Studley told Bridge.
“Before you know it, especially in the House, they're running for re-election.”
Any changes to term limits, which are enshrined in the state Constitution, would require a public vote. The Legislature could put the question on the ballot with a two-thirds majority, or more than 425,000 voter signatures would need to be gathered.
It would be a surprising alliance — the Michigan Republican Party and several prominent Republicans have two ongoing lawsuits seeking to shut down the redistricting commission championed by Voters Not Politicians. Voters last fall approved a ballot measure that takes power of drawing districts after the decennial census from politicians and gives it to a citizen commission.
The Michigan Chamber was the biggest backer of a group opposing the initiative, and also bankrolled redistricting efforts in 2011 that produced districts that a federal court this year ruled were drawn to favor Republicans.
(Studley noted Tuesday that the chamber’s legal battle with Voters Not Politicians last year was “very respectful.”)
Shirkey has been a vocal critic of Michigan’s term limits, saying earlier this year he would pursue a ballot initiative to lengthen or eliminate the limits. Voters Not Politicians, meanwhile, has searched for an issue to champion after making national news last year for its unlikely grassroots victory.
“VNP has also expressed interest in the issue, and the majority leader has met and talked with the group,” said Shirkey spokeswoman Amber McCann. “He is willing to talk about changes to term limits with any interested party.”
Shirkey is not pushing any specific reform proposal now but is “just discussing possibilities with interested groups,” she added.
Michigan term limits were approved by 60 percent of the public in 1992 and polls have shown they remain popular. But policymakers and others contend the limits are a barrier to good government. Research from the non-partisan think tank the Citizens Research Council of Michigan found term limits have led to increased political polarization and lobbyist influence, and have not made the Legislature more diverse or made elections more competitive.
Lawmakers also argue that the term limits stunt institutional knowledge: By the time legislators are savvy enough to make informed decisions and have fostered the relationships necessary to pass significant bills, they’re phased out of the chamber. That makes them even more vulnerable to special interests and lobbyists that oftentimes have more knowledge of complex issues than lawmakers do.
A movement failed in 2010 to put term limits reform on the ballot, and supporters of the law argue it works just fine.
Patrick Anderson, who helped author the 1992 term limits amendment, said he does not think voters will be "fooled" by what he said amounts to the "latest variation" on a long-running push to extend the caps.
“Most of these ideas involve some variation on the following: (a) tell voters you're going to get tough on politicians, and then (b) give them free rein to stay in the same office for a decade or more," Anderson said.
He noted that Michigan has a far more diverse government since the reforms passed, electing for the first time women governors, attorneys general and secretaries of state.
“One of the reasons we wanted to have term limits in Michigan was to open the door for people who traditionally had a very difficult time getting a shot at running in an open seat," he said. “And on this one criteria, term limits has been a smashing success. We clearly opened a door."